We’ll Dance Our Lives Away in the Ballrooms of Mars
The 1960s through 1980 might seem like a small span of time, but it encompasses so many important cultural shifts and the music that resulted from them. I had planned on being bold and stepping outside my comfort zone for this one – maybe I’d finally listen to one of the many artists I’ve been meaning to check out for a while. However, on the tail of our own terrifying cultural shift, I realize that what I need right now is something comforting and familiar, something that brings me back to my blissfully unaware childhood. Something safe. T. Rex, specifically their album The Slider, is that something.
Now, I think it’s reasonable to say that the majority of people know who David Bowie is (is, because I still refuse to say ‘was’). He’s an icon, an idol, a figurehead for people who were different and needed to feel more confident in their own skin. But in my world, before there was Bowie, there was Marc Bolan. While his name may not be quite as renowned as Bowie’s, he’s still crucial to the subversion of traditional masculine idealization in music. He was beautiful and glamorous and everything I admired – creative and talented and just a little bit “weird.” His role in shaping my identity, my fundamental understanding of myself at such a young age was extremely important.
I was 11 years old and I had just seen the movie School of Rock (which sounds super corny talking about it now, but it was a big deal to me as a child with a growing hunger for all kinds of music), and I immediately bought the soundtrack because everything I heard was like a revelation. But one song in particular stuck out to me – “Ballrooms of Mars.” It was the first T. Rex song I ever heard, and I was enamored.
Just a brief history lesson on T. Rex: they were an English band from London that, along with David Bowie, helped pioneer and popularize the glam rock movement. For those who might be unfamiliar, glam rock emphasized the aesthetics of androgyny, camp, and flamboyance, while the music itself is more complicated to define, because it didn’t necessarily fit a schema. The genre was just as much about the style as it was the music, and how that was interpreted depended on the artist. T. Rex had their own unique sound that’s hard to explain in words; trust me, I’ve been sitting here for a while now trying to come up with something clever, and I simply can’t. Their music just needs to be heard.
There are a lot of mythical themes recurrent throughout most of Marc Bolan’s catalogue, all the way from his psychedelic years throughout the end of his career. He was obsessed with fantastic literature for most of his life. Marc himself had even said “I personally believe that I was… a previous life or something… a previous reincarnation, a bard of some sort, because most of the things I write about are descriptions of places I’ve never been to.” Whether or not this was out of need for escapism or just because he thought dragons and wizards were pretty damn cool, well, we’ll never truly know. But it also doesn’t matter. That’s what his music is able to provide for me – a strange little world to get myself lost in when reality becomes a little too real.
Now here’s the point I’ve been trying to build towards from the beginning: The Slider is a fantastic fucking album, even though Electric Warrior is seen as the band’s best work (though I respectfully disagree). There’s nothing that stands out as technically complex, and I’m sure few people would consider it a masterpiece in any sense of the word – it’s not deep, insightful, or whatever descriptor people tend to associate with masterpieces. But it doesn’t need to be. Sometimes simplicity can be just as captivating as something more ambitious. It’s all about how a given piece of work makes you feel, and The Slider makes me feel happy. The majority of the record feels upbeat; I can’t help but sing along to “Metal Guru” whenever it comes on. The tune to “Baby Boomerang” is catchy as all hell. “Chariot Choogle” is the most definitive ‘rock’ song on the album, going harder than everything else (but still not all that hard, to be fair). “The Slider” makes absolutely no sense lyrically, but man, the music and the way he sings sets the song apart from everything else; it’s slinky and sexy in a certain way the rest of the album isn’t. But the standout for me is still “Ballrooms of Mars.” Now, I’m not one for analyzing lyrics most of the time, but there’s something about this song that makes me feel obligated to listen extra hard, to pay attention to what he’s saying and take it all in, every single time. It’s kind of depressing, but it’s also inexplicably beautiful. The imagery isn’t exaggerated, but it’s there, still more than enough to picture the kind of scene he describes. The best word I can come up with to sum up how this song sounds is “poignant.”
Marc Bolan was killed in a car crash in 1977. In a twist of tragic irony, he had never learned to drive out of fear of dying young (though funnily enough, the subject of cars comes up a lot in his music; one of the lyrics in “The Slider” talks about kissing cars so, y’know, sure). He was only 29 years old. While his musical career had been floundering at the time of his death, he had built enough of a legacy for those of us who weren’t able to experience him in his heyday to enjoy; “Ballrooms of Mars” will likely always be one of my favorite songs of all time.
One of my favorite current artists released a cover album dedicated to the work of Marc Bolan, with his own garage rock interpretation of (in my opinion) some of the man’s best songs. I highly recommend giving it a listen, even if T. Rex isn’t exactly your thing.